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The Globe and Mail

If Stephen Harper's an economist, I'm the Queen of Sheba

Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with the President of Lebanon in Montreux, Switzerland, on Oct. 22, 2010.


The Conservatives claim depriving Canada's largest corporations of another $6-billion in tax cuts would cost 400,000 jobs. Do you believe them?

Stephen Harper likes to be described as a "trained economist." Do you believe him?

Would you believe this government if it said this was October?

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The opposition parties have only one hope in the election that will come next spring. They must make the Prime Minister's credibility the ballot question. They must convince Canadians that the only salient issue is whether they believe Stephen Harper when he describes his past record and insists only he can offer the kind of economic management the country needs.

The ammunition to bury the Conservatives is overwhelming. Yet a majority of Canadians still don't see it. The Harper government has endured as awful a political summer and early autumn as possible, the victim of a barrage of self-inflicted wounds. Yet polls show the government is now hovering in the mid-30s while the Liberals limp in between 28 per cent and 32 per cent and the NDP is still stuck at around 16 per cent. It makes no sense but it's true.

This means another minority government for Mr. Harper. While this is far from the majority he yearns for, given his track record it's a miracle. It shows what a waste Michael Ignatieff's interminable summer on the BBQ circuit actually was and the apparent impossibility of the NDP benefiting from the failures of its opponents.

The only hope for the opposition is that most Canadians aren't yet paying attention. Maybe they've sensibly tuned out the cynicizing political spectacle that Ottawa presents. Maybe they're just not fully aware of the Conservative record. The slam dunk case that the Conservatives have no credibility and have forfeited the right to be trusted by Canadians has, obviously, not been made.

The Liberals have just produced a propaganda video that's running on their website. Incredibly, instead of focusing on Harper's mountain of vulnerabilities, the video implicitly portrays Mr. Ignatieff as a foreign dilettante, exactly as the Conservatives want him. What a waste.

A month ago I thought the Liberals had finally gotten smart. They had united against the government's ploy to abolish the long-gun registry. Then they shrewdly kept the census fiasco alive. These were attacks on the Harper government's major Achilles heel: its credibility.

In aiming to abolish the gun registry, a sophomoric law-and-order government repudiates the police chiefs and the Mounties who strongly endorse it. In championing angry rural Canadians, it ignores surveys showing almost half of rural Canadians support the registry, including more than half of rural women. It has not the slightest interest in the easy changes that would make the registry less inconvenient.

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The government's out-of-the-blue attack on the long-form census showed the world it couldn't trust anything the Harper gang ever says on any subject, including October. This was a crisis wholly invented by the Prime Minister, devoid of a shred of commonsense or rational justification, that succeeded magnificently in uniting almost the entire country against him. Every single explanation for this incomprehensible initiative was somewhere between a wild exaggeration and a total lie. In the process, the Prime Minister, fronted by Tony Clement (the Rob Ford of Parliament), undermined the value of the census, lost a top-notch civil servant, and made themselves a laughingstock around the world.

They also gave the world an entirely new principle of democratic governance. In the history-making words of Mr. Clement: If only one Canadian complained about the census, that's good enough to kill it. This followed the revelation that the vaunted thousands of daily complaints about census intrusiveness proved in reality to be maybe 25 to 30 messages a year related in any way to the census. Thousands daily? A fraction of 30 annually? Doesn't matter. The principle stands. One is enough. The consequences of this new proposition have not yet been fully reckoned. What does it mean, say, for elections and income taxes? What will happen to PoliSci 101?

Every reader will have her/his own best examples where the Harper government forfeited any claim to credibility. Look at any activity of his government. Look at the Prime Minister's speech to the United Nations in September in his determined pursuit of a Security Council seat, where he placed his government firmly in the mainstream of Canada's international priorities for the past half-century, most of which he has attempted to reverse, beginning with respect for the UN itself.

He tried to impress the General Assembly by pledging $30-million in new money to the badly under-funded Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria at the very time it was revealed that his government last year spent $100-million on advertising its own glories.

When Canada was humiliated by losing the Security Council seat Mr. Harper had worked so assiduously to win, he 1) insisted the UN was not worthy of Canada, 2) blamed the defeat on the all-powerful Mr. Ignatieff, and 3) attributed it to his government's lofty democratic principles such as de-funding organizations that dare disagree with it. I am reminded of the man accused of returning a badly damaged sculpture he had borrowed. As he told the judge, 1) he never borrowed it, 2) it was broken when he got it, 3) it was in perfect condition when he returned it.

Or look at Stephen Harper's rhetorical embrace of our troops compared with the disgraceful treatment his government metes out to needy soldiers when they come home. This issue alone deserves an entire election campaign.

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Or the government's absolute insistence on accountability and transparency from every organization it's out to skewer while remaining the least transparent and accountable in our history. Easiest thing in the world to document.

But surely the government is most vulnerable in the area that, with awe-inspiring chutzpah, they tout as their greatest asset - economic management. Amazingly enough, they want this to be the ballot question. The Conservative spin begins with The Big Joke that the Prime Minister is a "trained economist," a myth repeated by lazy reporters. This bit of folklore is at the heart of the government's case for its credibility. Can they get away with it? Will the opposition let them get away with it? Tune in next week to find out.

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